Long before his death in 1970, German scientist Otto Warburg was considered one of the greatest biochemists of the 20th century.
His research provided some of the first inroads to understanding cellular respiration, photosynthesis and the origins of cancer. In 1931 he even won the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for his work…
And then in 1953 James Watson and Francis Crick discovered the structure of DNA, which ushered in the age of molecular biology.
The chief theory that emerged from this discovery is that cancer is caused by genetic mutations that force cells to divide and multiply relentlessly.
Warburg’s theories were no longer debated, but brushed aside as researchers became convinced genes were the key to causing–and curing–cancer.
But here we are, more than 60 years later, and we’re no closer to a cure… In fact, cancer incidence continues to rise…
And so researchers are returning to Warburg’s theory, and discovering that perhaps they shouldn’t have turned from it all those years ago…
The metabolism of cancer
Studying sea-urchin eggs in the 1920s, Otto Warburg was the first to discover that cancer cells are fueled by swallowing enormous amounts of glucose (sugar) and then breaking it down without oxygen, even though there was plenty of oxygen available to these cells.
This process is called aerobic glycolysis, and it’s in direct opposition to the respiration of healthy cells, which need oxygen to survive and replicate.
When cells begin eating glucose instead of using oxygen, it’s called the Warburg effect, aptly named, and it’s present in about 80% of all cancers.
This discovery proved to be fundamental in the way we diagnose cancer even today. The positron emission tomography (PET) scan, an important detection tool, works by revealing the places in the body where cells are consuming extra glucose.
Through his research Warburg became convinced that cells start going crazy for glucose because the cell’s mitochondria become damaged and are unable to use oxygen properly. In his theory, this damaged respiration process is essentially the starting point of cancer.
Connecting cellular metabolism and molecular biology
Figuring out the “why” of the Warburg effect have been puzzling cancer researchers. They’re now searching for the missing link between gene mutation theories—specifically genes that control cell division and regulate nutrient consumption—and cancer metabolism to understand what triggers the rapid glucose consumption of cancer cells.
The gene AKT plays a prominent role in cell division by creating a chain of signaling proteins. When this chain is mutated, or “activated,” it stimulates the Warburg effect in healthy cells, causing them to disregard signals to stop eating, and go on a glucose-eating rampage.
Once this happens, these cells are also more prone to apoptosis (cell death) once glucose is remove.(1)
But many researchers, including molecular biologist James Watson, now think that targeting cellular metabolism as the root cause of cancer will yield greater results than starting with the gene mutation.
Dr. Watson was quoted in a New York Times article about the Warburg revival that “locating the genes that cause cancer has been remarkably unhelpful” and “if he were going into cancer research today he would study biochemistry rather than molecular biology.”(2)
Part of why sequencing DNA to find cancer causes didn’t work is because there can be many kinds of gene mutations in a single cancer. In fact, researchers have found no consistency, no rhyme or reason to gene mutations in cancer.
But there are only a few, limited ways cells use fuel in the human body.
Cancer cells use fuel in a distinct and different way than healthy cells, every time. Researchers are hoping to learn how to disrupt this glucose-fueling cycle in order to stop cancer growth, essentially by starving cancer cells of their fuel: sugar.
A high-sugar diet and elevated insulin levels feed cancer cells
Researchers are seeing links between obesity, diabetes and cancer caused by the high-sugar diet so common in the United States and other Western countries.
Dr. James Watson said in the New York Times article, “I think there’s no doubt that insulin is pro-cancer.”
The standard American diet of processed foods, simple carbohydrates and sugar cause permanent elevated insulin levels, which in turn causes the insulin signaling pathways to go haywire. This can then trigger the Warburg effect.
In fact, metformin, a common drug used to lower blood glucose and insulin levels in people with diabetes, has been shown to reduce the risk of developing cancer in its users.(3)
There’s a possibility this drug use will be expanded to include cancer prevention as well as treatment of diabetes in the future.
Ketogenic diet may be the key to starving cancer
It’s better to take matters into your own hands by adjusting your diet than waiting around for Big Pharma to come up with a solution, however.
Because cancer feeds on glucose and sugar, the best way to prevent it is to starve it out. Reduce your sugar intake and lower your insulin levels to create a body environment in which cancer cells cannot thrive.
Switching from a diet high in sugar and processed, simple carbohydrates, which turn to sugar in your body and spike your insulin level, to a diet high in healthy fats (also called a ketogenic, or “keto” diet), may be the key to lowering your cancer risk.
By lowering your carb intake, your body switches to burning fat for fuel instead of sugars and glucose. This has the added benefit of lowering body fat content in addition to limiting the fuel for cancer cells.
If following a ketogenic diet, you would also keep your protein intake between 40 and 60 grams per day. Protein spikes your insulin levels, although not as much as carbs.
A diet for optimal cellular health is one that’s rich in antioxidants and fats from foods such as
- Organic fruits and vegetables
- Good fats from raw nuts, avocados, grass-fed butter, coconut and coconut oil
- High-fiber foods like chia seeds, root and cruciferous veggies and some berries
- Protein from grass-fed meats, beans and pasture-raised eggs
Of course, this isn’t news if you’ve been reading Cancer Defeated for any length of time.
The science behind the kind of diet I’ve been promoting keeps stacking up, proving that diet and lifestyle have a profound impact on cancer risk.
Getting cancer isn’t simply “bad luck” or “bad genes” or another fatalistic excuse. You CAN take an active role in reducing your risk of developing cancer.
And that’s encouraging news, to know that you hold your health in your hands. You have the choice to do with your health what you wish.
- AKT stimulates aerobic glycolysis in cancer cells. http://cancerres.aacrjournals.org/content/64/11/3892.short
- An old idea revived: Starve cancer to death. http://www.nytimes.com/2016/05/15/magazine/warburg-effect-an-old-idea-revived-starve-cancer-to-death.html?rref=collection%2Fsectioncollection&_r=1
- New users of metformin are at low risk of incident cancer. http://care.diabetesjournals.org/content/32/9/1620.short